Today was the day! I had been awaiting anxiously our visit to the Taj Mahal since my arrival in India. I woke up at 5:30 and peeked out the window, hoping to see clear skies as the sun rose.
…rain. A torrential downpour, an actual monsoon. I was crushed: how would I take the perfect picture of the Taj Mahal if it was pouring rain? The rain turned out to be the biggest blessing. The hotel kindly bestowed umbrellas upon us and, due to the rain, there were very few people (compared to normal), so we were able to enjoy the Taj (and get great pictures!) without the usual crowd.
When we arrived at the outside gate, our driver parked and we were taken by shuttle up to the actual gate; once again, they’re trying to cut down on pollution in the area surrounding it. We had to go through security (it felt a bit like an airport) and then were finally allowed inside the complex!
What I didn’t realize was that there was a huge gate at the entry to the Taj. In my opinion, it was large enough and beautifully crafted enough to be a monument of its own! We walked under the arch and wove through the crowd to stand closer at an unobstructed angle. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe what it was like to see this magnificent building in person. I was speechless. It was absolutely breathtaking. I may or may not have cried a little (spoiler: I did).
The massive scale of this building, combined with the exceedingly intricate detail, is just astounding. Up close, the Taj is inlaid with millions of semi precious stones. One single lotus flower was comprised of over 64 individual pieces, and I can’t fathom how many flowers and other designs adorn the walls. We were able to walk inside (which, for some reason I hadn’t been expecting), and see the detail up close. Our guide held up a flashlight to the marble that to demonstrate how it reflects whatever light is cast upon it, which explains why the Taj Mahal looks different in every picture. It is said to look most beautiful under a full moon.
It still is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that this building was made before the modern construction techniques we have today; yet the work is impeccable. Everything is perfectly symmetrical, including the two buildings that flank the Taj. One is used as a mosque, the other lies empty, its only contribution being the symmetry.
The only exception to this is Shah Jahan’s tomb. Lying to the left of his wife’s, he is the only one to break the symmetry. This was not his plan, he originally wanted to build a tomb for himself: an exact replica of the Taj Mahal across the stream in black marble. However, his son exiled him to Agra Fort before much progress could be made.
The Taj Mahal took roughly twenty two years to make (with the five years to make the additional buildings and gates), and descendants of the artisans who worked on it help maintain it to this day. It was all done to honor Mumtaz Mahal, beloved wife of Shah Jahan. It is no wonder they call it a symbol of love.
Seeing this will always be one of my most treasured memories.
After we left the Taj, we started on the road to Jaipur, the third and final city of the Golden Triangle tour. On the way, however, we had two planned stops. The first was Fatehpur Sikri, another former capital of the Mughal Empire; they liked to move around a lot, it seems. Built by Akbar (remember him? Shah Jahan’s grandfather?) it incorporated aspects of Muslim, Christian, and Hindu architecture. After a local Sufi saint predicted (correctly) the birth of an heir, Akbar moved his empire’s capital there.
Akbar had separate compounds within the complex for each of his wives and each was decorated in the style of each wife’s religion. Additionally, there was a large public meeting area where people could voice their complaints to the king. Our guide showed us a peg in the ground where an elephant used to be tied. When enemies were captured or people needed to be put to death, Akbar would have the elephant crush their skull by stomping on them. Supposedly he enjoyed watching.
Inside, there was a huge fountain, large courtyard, garden, and an area with a raised rectangular slab in the center. Akbar used to sit there and play a game (that seemed similar to chess from what I could gather) using women dressed in beautiful saris.
Another really interesting aspect of Fatehpur Sikri, and all the forts and residences we visited, was how they were adapted to the weather despite a lack of modern technology. There were different rooms for winter and summer, channels of water with strategically placed windows, and all other sorts of mechanisms to keep the inhabitants comfortable. It would be amazing to see these places in their original grandeur.
Adjacent to Fatehpur Sikri was another walled area. Considered a holy site, we had to remove our shoes before even climbing the stairs to enter. Inside was a large courtyard, half covered by raised tombs. This is where Sheikh Salim Chishti, who predicted that Akbar’s Hindu wife would have a son, is buried. Today, people leave offerings on the tomb itself, and tie strings to the marble lattice inside. Rumor has it that if they do this, and don’t tell anyone about what they wished for, it will come true. The incense smelled so good, and the combination of colors (most people left a length of fabric as an offering) combined with the white marble was stunning. We weren’t allowed any photographs inside the tomb, but it was beautiful.
After a brief lunch break, we continued on towards Jaipur. It was during lunch that I discovered another one of my favorite things about India: the tradition of eating fennel seeds and rock sugar after a meal. Fennel tastes kind of like black licorice (delicious). This being said, if you’re not a fan of black licorice, then I wouldn’t advise this (the two girls on my program strongly dislike it). However, fennel is great for both freshening your breath and settling your stomach.
Our final stop before Jaipur was a huge stone creation: the Abhaneri Step-Well, or Chand Baori Step-Well. This was built in the 8th century, making it (I think) one of the oldest things we had seen thus far. The rooms built into the side of it were perfect for the summer months: wind + cool, collected water = natural air conditioning. We also saw some facades taken from the temple next door; they all displayed Hindu gods but the faces had been destroyed by the Mughals.
We were taken next to said temple, the Harshat Mata Temple, built between the 7th and 8th century. It was very peaceful and serene: the surrounding countryside was simply stunning. Before we left, we were treated to some chai right outside the step-well. It was served in tiny clay cups, which we thought was peculiar at first. It was explained that this was a tradition dating back to the caste system, so that no one would have to drink after anyone else, lest they be of a lesser caste.
After finally arriving in Jaipur, we got settled in and had dinner (with ice cream for dessert!). All around, a wonderful and busy day.